The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump wants Republicans to hate football

Three players on the Los Angeles Rams kneel during the national anthem. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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As President Trump contemplates the 54 days that remain before the election, he has a menu of different things he could do to convince voters that he should remain in office. Do a better job handling the coronavirus pandemic? Ugh, too much work. Tell everyone the economy is doing great despite the fact that about 30 million Americans are unemployed? Sure. Terrify voters into thinking armies of anarchists will burn their homes to the ground if he isn’t reelected? You bet.

And how about some sports-based culture war? Oh yes.

The NFL is about to begin its season, and one that — as has been the case with many other sports — will feature athletes making statements about police brutality and systemic racism. Instead of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and getting blacklisted as a result, we could see players on every team using the opportunity of televised games to make political statements.

And Trump, who many times expressed his belief that sports leagues should ignore the dangers of the pandemic and just get back to playing, isn’t happy at all:

Trump and his allies have continued to eviscerate the NFL, as the president attempts to tie his criticism of the players to his broader law-and-order reelection message against the protests, which have been violent in some cities. In an interview with sports talk host Clay Travis last month, Trump said he hopes the league does not restart games if the players aren’t standing during the anthem.
“Football is officially dead — so much for ‘America’s sport.’ Goodbye NFL . . . I’m gone,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, wrote in a tweet on Monday, responding to a report that a Dallas Cowboys player said the team’s ownership had given the “green light” to protests.

How the league will survive without the support of Eric Trump is yet to be determined. As for Joe Biden, he hasn’t said much about this issue other than to put blame on Trump’s bungling of the pandemic for the fact that sports have been limited.

But since even before he took office, Trump saw this issue as a terrific opportunity to get Republican voters mad at athletes — especially Black athletes — who use their platforms to express their opinions.

You may remember that in 2017, Mike Pence staged his own football protest, traveling to Indianapolis for a game the administration knew would feature players from the San Francisco 49ers kneeling during the national anthem, so that he could walk out in mock outrage. Reporters were told beforehand to expect the vice president’s dramatic departure — and afterward Trump claimed he had engineered the whole thing.

When it comes to culture war posturing, this administration is never subtle. But there’s no question that the feeling of betrayal some white conservatives feel at moments like this is real.

So let’s be honest: Nobody really has a problem when athletes make their opinions known. You have a problem when those opinions turn out to be different from yours.

Sports, especially team sports, are deeply tribal; the whole idea is that we’re watching a kind of facsimile of warfare between two opposing tribes, with all the excitement and none of the bloodshed (or at least not very much). Even though fans have no actual stake in the outcome, the more invested you feel, the more thrilling the game can be.

NFL wide receiver Kenny Stills and sports broadcaster Bob Costas say athletes once vilified for protesting police brutality will be viewed kindly by history. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, the more tribal our politics is — the more we feel that supporting one party and not the other makes you a fundamentally different kind of person whose fate is opposed to that of those other people — the greater the emotional impact when you find out some of your favorite athletes don’t share your views.

Then we have this very particular situation, in which all these athletes are expressing ideas that conservatives find displeasing. If you’re a liberal football fan, how would you feel if half the NFL players were holding up signs saying “Cut the capital gains tax!” before every game? Probably not that great.

You might, however, decide to get past the pregame protest and just enjoy the performance, as I’m sure many conservatives would like to do. But Trump doesn’t want them to. While the athletes are trying to use the opportunity of a televised event to express their opinions, then go ahead and play the game, it’s Trump who wants people to believe that the game itself is ruined if even one of the athletes says something you don’t agree with before the whistle blows.

As he tweeted in July, “Looking forward to live sports, but any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”

The majority of Americans don’t agree with him about that: In a new Post poll, 62 percent of Americans said it’s appropriate for athletes to express their views on national issues, and 56 percent said it’s appropriate for them to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.

Only minorities of Republicans — 43 and 36 percent, respectively — agree with those positions. Even if that’s still a pretty significant proportion of his own supporters, that’s fine with the president. From where he sits, stoking culture war anger isn’t about whether most of the people agree with you, it’s about how angry you can get your own base.

He wants to convince them that dastardly liberals are destroying everything they love, and that popular culture — movies, TV, music, sports — is where their values are attacked and their very identities are degraded, an arena of tribal conflict where they’re always losing and in danger of outright annihilation.

To be fair, there are elements of truth there, overstated though it might be. But reelecting Trump won’t change that. If anything, another Trump term will only make athletes more eager to speak out, and make actors and musicians less able to separate politics from their work. If you don’t like that thought, you might want to consider blaming him.

Read more:

Roger Goodell and Allen Sills: The NFL is ready for some football in this season of covid-19

Kenny Stills and Bob Costas: In the NFL, peaceful protests — not cynical flag displays — show true patriotism

Paul Waldman: Stunning new disclosures blow huge holes in Trump’s Potemkin facade

Paul Waldman: William Barr’s corruption of DOJ is getting worse. Where are the mass resignations?